Waterloo students in midst of river study
FORT FRANCES—If you’ve been fishing or travelling along the Rainy River over the past couple of months, you may have come across a boat from the University of Waterloo in the water or seen some orange markings along the shoreline.
That boat and those markings are part of a two-year thesis study, being done by students Jeff Muirhead and Adrienne Smith, to assess the health of the food web in the river, along with the effects hydroelectric dam discharge practices have on the fishery.
“Starting in August, we will be doing our lower trophic level sampling, which will include everything from algae to forage fish, and then we will head back down to Waterloo to analyze our data,” she explained.
“Along with doing our biology studies, we’ve also been collecting all of the hydraulic information that’s occurring on the river for the different levels that we’ve seen,” added Muirhead, a Master’s of Applied Science candidate in water resources engineering.
“Our goal is to overlap both of our data, and to create those links that make the relationship between the two things,” he remarked.
The project itself, which also has received help from the International Joint Commission, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Sault Ste. Marie, the Ministry of Natural Resources in Fort Frances, and the Department of Natural Resources in International Falls, is slated to be competed in 2014.
It is a little bit different from most normal thesis projects.
“Often in a thesis project, you have a specific question you want to have answered,” noted Smith.
“But in the end, the data here is going to be used for recommendations in a much more broader scale.”
“It’s not purely an academic exercise where you are answering a question with an end goal,” echoed Muirhead.
“And hopefully this data that we find will be used by the International Joint Commission in 2015, when they have to make recommendations on dam discharges,” he added.
Muirhead’s work on the thesis began back in September at the University of Waterloo, with Smith joining up in January, giving them three months to get ready before coming up to Fort Frances.
“I had heard about the project, and knew that it was going to entail biology and hydraulic aspects,” Smith noted.
“But when I signed up, I didn’t know that Jeff and I would be working so close together as we have been, but it is working out great so far,” she said.
“Working together on this has sort of been the cool part about this project for us,” agreed Muirhead.
“While we both have our own areas of expertise, I have learned a lot about biology and she’s learned a lot about engineering.
“Even if we don’t become experts on those things, we have had a decent amount of exposure to both of our fields,” he reasoned.
As is often the case in field work, some of the ideas Smith and Muirhead both felt could happen during their work in Waterloo has turned out to be completely different once they set out onto the Rainy River.
“I was extremely surprised by the sturgeon population in the river,” Smith remarked.
“I was expecting to come here and catch 30 sturgeons over our sampling season, but we managed to catch over 250 during that time and that was a big thing for us.”
“I would say that when we came here, I was anticipating some pretty low flows because it had been such a dry year,” Muirhead added.
“But we had some pretty crazy rains in late May and early June, and it was surprising to see just how much that has an effect on the watershed.”
In addition to their studies on the river, which sometimes can last seven days a week and has seen them work until the wee hours of the morning, the students also had a chance to do some data gathering during the Emo Walleye Classic back in May.
“We need to take isotope samples late in the season, and since we fished in early April for the walleye, we had to wait a few weeks to get that data,” Smith explained.
“It [working at the EWC] was a big help for us as we didn’t have to fish for weeks to get that information, and it was a great experience for us to be a part of that,” she added.
Smith, Muirhead, and co-op student Emma Buckrell made a presentation on their work to date last Thursday evening at the Fort Frances Public Library, which was hosted by the Fort Frances Sportsmen’s Club.
They also fielded questions from club members and the general public.
“We’ve actually run into several people in that room throughout our various excursions doing field work and various things around the community,” Muirhead noted.
“Each of them have had different pieces of information and knowledge that you can’t replace, and they have been invaluable for us in making those connections with people that can help us out and to let people know what is that we are doing,” he stressed.
Both Smith and Muirhead will return to Waterloo at the end of August, but will be returning here next spring to complete their data gathering before finishing work on their final thesis for 2014.
“After we present our thesis, we hope to publish a few articles on our data in some scientific publications so that everyone will have a chance to see what we learned,” Smith said.
“But before we head back down to Waterloo to do that, I’m sure we will have another information session here in Fort Frances next year for anyone who is interested.”
(Fort Frances Times)